(Inti Gonzalez)

In a previous column, I made the remark that a key factor in keeping some people from exiting homelessness is lack of confidence. In my case, as the years went on, I watched myself fail at every effort to escape homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area. In a maddening and inexplicable way, all roads seemed to lead back to homelessness. As I watched other people sustain their living situations successfully, I wondered what was wrong with me.

Looking back, it strikes me as odd that I would have sustained this lack of confidence for so long. After all, when I finally did land a place to live, it went fairly smoothly for me. 

People thought I must have undergone a huge psychic change in order for this to take place. It seemed to my Facebook friends I was dying in Berkeley one day, and thriving up in Idaho the next. While I have always attributed that sudden swift change to an act of divine intervention, I must confess that an enormous leap in confidence had a lot to do with it.

To be frank, I had to leave my beloved city of Berkeley before I could see straight to figure out the next move. While substance abuse was not the reason why I became homeless in the first place, its prevalence in the homeless realm made it very challenging to avoid. By 2016, I was so deeply entrenched in the “game,” I realized the only way to get out of the game was to get out of town. While this was a feasible decision for me that led to a successful outcome, I recognize that this option is not possible for everybody.

I silently walked out of the city of Berkeley in June 2016, crossed the Bay, and started hanging out in an all-night donut shop in Burlingame. Five weeks later, with 35 days of sobriety, I stepped off a Greyhound bus in Northern Idaho to start a new life. 

I needed a lift in confidence to show myself that I actually could get off of those drugs—and that it would start by leaving my connections behind. Newfound sobriety, though tenuous, gave me a boost of confidence. And upon that boost I built a new life.

Boosts in confidence can look different for everybody. In general, we tend to believe the things we’re told. If we are told something repeatedly, again and again, it has a way of driving itself deeper and deeper into our consciousness. But not all the things that others say about us are actually true. When you stop to think about it, how can they be?

For example, I was often told that the only way I would ever get out of homelessness would be to check myself into one of those live-in rehabs where they confiscate your laptop and the shoelaces of your running shoes and don’t let you out for air. But whenever I tried any such situation, it was only a matter of time before my lifelong need for freedom and solitude got the better of whatever vague sense of responsibility was keeping me there. It’s not that I didn’t identify with the struggles of addiction. But I would often be shamed on departing from a live-in facility. People would tell me I wasn’t giving sobriety a chance. My reply was that the facility was a great place to make a new drug connection, and that was about it. 

They would then tell me that I was “defiant” and “in denial” and all kinds of stuff. But in rejecting what clearly did not work for me, I found a way that has actually worked out pretty well. It’s not perfect, but it beats living in one of those places, and it sure beats sleeping on a piece of cardboard on a pile of dirt outside of East Bay Area Works.

This is not to say that live-in programs haven’t worked for some. What I do mean to say is that each of us is possessed of a unique spirit—something that is solely one’s own, that has the power to animate a person in the face of all opposition, and all voices attempting to define oneself otherwise. I think that within each of us there is a special light, and we all do well when we allow it to shine. When we let others define us, we let those precious lights be doused. 

That’s been my experience, anyway. People like to put others into safe boxes, where they can write them off according to categories, to social groups they have stigmatized. They may sometimes seem very kind and caring, but by and large they are only trying to wash their hands of a greater social ill in which we all have some part.

For many, the experience of homelessness boils down to an experience of being thought of as less than fully human—less than who we truly are. So the healing of that ill has been in recognizing that homelessness did not make me less human, but actually more human. In experiencing our hearts stripped away from us, we realized the strength and power of those same, hidden human hearts.

Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.

Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.